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They come in a staggering variety of subjects, sizes, shapes, and colors. Today's market for illustrated gift books—aka coffee-table titles—is influenced by pop culture (Lady Gaga, anyone?), current trends (art, architecture, fashion, cooking, etc.), and, perhaps most strongly, the economic downturn. As the traditional gift season approaches, PW spoke with four players in this category to find out the latest in the publishing, marketing, and selling of today's illustrated gift books.

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Barnes & Noble: Marketing V-P Patricia Bostleman

The wide variety in the illustrated gift book category provides a distinct sales advantage, says Patricia Bostleman, v-p of marketing for Barnes & Noble. "We don't just have one customer in our stores, we have a cross-section," she says. "So we have an opportunity to merchandise gift books throughout a store." During the holiday season, B&N stores set up gift book displays in different sections, targeting music lovers or history buffs; online, gift guides and recommendations guide customers searching for ideas.

A gift book's relatively high price is tempered by its purpose, says Bostleman: "These books are considered gifts, whether they're to be given to someone else or given to ourselves—that's a factor we enjoy as well." Customers remain willing to pay a premium for beautiful, comprehensive books with high production value, she says, citing by way of example 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, which Andrews McMeel will publish in two weeks and which retails for $100. "It's a very serious price," she says. "However, if you are a Doonesbury fan, you want this book—it's beautiful and complete." Gift-seekers, she says, also invest more in limited editions, such as Patti Smith's Just Kids (Ecco, Nov.), which includes a never-before-published broadsheet poem, and first editions like George W. Bush's highly anticipated Decision Points.

Although the cost of illustrated gift books typically starts around $30 and stretches past the $100 mark, Bostleman reports that some publishers have revised their pricing based on the economic downturn: "We're seeing a lot more in the $30–$40 range that would have previously been priced at $50–$60. In many cases, they're lower prices than we saw several years ago."

The economy also influences what content appeals to gift seekers: "People feel better about spending money when [the purchase is] practical," says Bostleman. For this reason, she says, cookbooks are particularly popular this year. Although there are many gift-book mainstays, like music books and history books, "we see the trends vary as popular culture changes." Superhero and comics collections, for example, tie into the popularity of the graphic novel; the recently published The Making of Avatar (Abrams) charts the creation of this film phenomenon. Perhaps the direct opposite of austere, Lady Gaga will adorn coffee tables this season with Sterling's Gaga by Johnny Morgan, out in November. "If anyone is going to be the subject of an art book," says Bostleman, "she should."

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